Read A Box of Gargoyles Online
Authors: Anne Nesbet
“Oh,” said Valko, and his eyes lit up a little, as they did whenever the conversation veered into ideas he particularly liked chewing over. “But. Well. I mean, a
can't make you do anything, all right, but as far as dominoes go .Â .Â . The world really
sort of like that, right? Everything's caused by something. Billions and billions and billions of little dominoes, falling all the time. Don't you think about that, sometimesâyou know, when you're about to open your mouth and say something? Don't you kind of wonder what it is the dominoes are going to make you say?”
Maya looked at him.
What? Wonder what the dominoes were going to make you say?
“Nope,” she said.
But the word felt strange in her mouth, all of a suddenâsort of rectangular and full of extra corners andâwell, to tell the truth, ever so slightly like .Â .Â . a domino.
ater that day Maya sat at the dining-room table with an open notebook in front of her and a pen in her hand. Her hand had more or less stopped in its tracks, and it was all Valko's fault. Billions of dominoes everywhere! So what did that mean? It was already fixed in stone somehow, what word she was about to write? If she paid careful, careful attention, could she catch that particular domino before it fell? Could she figure out what her brain and hand meant to writeâand then do something completely different? Or would the different thing just be the domino falling, all over again? Her eyes had glued themselves to the tip of her ballpoint pen, and now they refused to budge.
She had sat there over her notebook, completely frozen, for a few minutes already, when she noticed her parents had stopped working on their jigsaw puzzle at the other end of the table and were now both staring at her in amused concern (or possibly just plain amusement; hard to tell).
“Maya, dear, are you stuck?” said her mother, who probably thought Maya was trying to do a bit of extra homework over vacation.
“Yes,” said Maya in relief. “I can't figure out whether I can write anything surprising or if every time I write a word, a gazillion little dominoes have already decided what that word is going to be.”
“Oh!” said her parents, and (freaking Maya out a bit) they gave each other particularly warm and loving smiles, as if the topic of little dominoes were for some reason near and dear to their hearts.
“Determinism! Physics! The great machine!” said her father to her mother, the way other people's parents might mention the national parks they visited on their honeymoon, and her mother laughed and patted him on the hand.
“Wiggle room, dear. It's all about the wiggle room.”
Maya stared at them in growing disbelief.
“Hello?” she said. “Darling parents?”
They remembered themselves then, turned back to Maya, and included her in their smiles.
“Sorry, Maya,” said her father. “It's just that we first met in this English class, you know, long long ago, right after the creation of the world, when we were in collegeâ”
“Where they made us read
,” said her mother. “It's a play.”
“Greek tragedy,” said her father. “Oracle says baby will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother, so naturally they send the baby off to be left on the hillside to dieâ”
“Poor little thing!” said her mother.
“But instead,” Maya's father continued, “a shepherd takes him in, and other stuff happens, and he ends up being raised by another familyâ”
“Yes, he does,” said Maya's mother. “And then little Oedipus grows up and
goes and talks to the oracle, and it tells him he's going to kill his father and marry his mother, and so he does everything he can to avoid killing or marrying the people he thinks are his parentsâ”
“Which means, ha-ha, that he blunders right into killing another man, who of course turns out to have been his birth father, and marrying another woman, who of course turns out to have been his birth motherâ”
Maya's parents were relishing this story all too much.
“That's seriously gross,” said Maya.
“So the oracle was right all along,” said Maya's mother. “That's the way Greek tragedies are. And then we got into a big argument in class.”
“With the teacher?” said Maya.
“With each other.” Her mother laughed. “I said it was awful to think of life being all planned out in advance that way. It was so unfair! And how I was very glad I did not live in ancient Greece, if that's how they saw the world. And your father went on this long tear about deterministic theories of the universe, meaning everything is part of some kind of huge mechanism that just chugs along like a clock. And I said,
What about free will?
And he said,
No such thing, if you're a determinist
. And I said,
Then I'm not a determinist, that's for sure
. And he said,
Not that you have any choice about that
. And then I threw a notebook at him, and the other students clapped.”
Maya's father grinned.
“They did. They were awful. Then, after class, I took your mother out for coffee and confessed.”
“Confessed what?” said Maya.
“That I knew better. I was studying physics, right? There's all this stuff in modern physics that shows us that on the very small scale, on the quantum level, all sorts of strange things happen all the time. You can't even say A will cause B; you have to talk about what's probable, not what's certain, and sometimes even the very most improbable things happen.”
“Oh,” said Maya. She was still a little too caught up in the idea of her long-ago very young mother throwing a notebook at her long-ago very young father to follow the details of all of these As and Bs.
“So I said things might have worked out better for poor old Oedipus,” said her mother, “if he had just managed to move from Greece to the quantum level.”
“More wiggle room there, apparently.”
“Um,” said Maya. “So if someone now is, like, caught up in some kind of magic that makes her do all these different things, just like the Oedipus guy, then what should she do?”
was just a story,” said her father, wagging his finger at her. “Stories are a different case entirely.”
“Look for that wiggle room,” said her mother. “There's usually more wiggle room than you think, even in stories.”
Meanwhile, however, the wiggle room in Maya's life seemed in many respects very much limited. When she was getting ready for bed that night, something clinked onto the floor and wobbled there for a while like a flattish brass top. It was the clunky old button the ebony bird had spit out into her handâshe had forgotten all about it. She reached down to pick it up, and it gave an extra wobble in her palm, like a dog turning in circles before curling up in its bed. It was stamped with an old-fashioned crest: an elaborate
and a salamander curled up on a rockâ
, thought Maya.
Of course. It
have to have a salamander
On the back were engraved a few words in French, “
Au point d'origine
.” To the Origin Point. That made her think of graphs in her geometry textbook, but why geometry terms should be showing up on a button was not entirely clear. She put it up on a high shelf, out of sight.
And outside on the fire escape, the gargoyles sat waiting for her. That's not all: every day they sat
. In the middle of each night Maya would be woken up by another brief eruption of clatter, and every morning when she cracked open the window to peer out, those gargoyles would still be there, but no longer exactly where they had been the day before. They would be clustered together looking at something, or one would be lifting something (a twig?) into the air, examining it, or their wings would be spread out wide to catch some nonexistent breeze, as if they had just landed back on the fire escape after a bit of aerial gallivanting when time froze for them again.
But stone is way, way heavier than air. Stone things can't fly
Maya gave up. She could not think about these problems the way Valko did. “You just didn't notice the wings before”âthat was what he had said yesterday on the phone. “They're
, Maya. I know someone apparently dragged them from here to your place, which is really weird and hard to imagine and doesn't make any sense, but they can't really be moving around on their
. I mean, like we were saying the other day: it's hallucinations, maybe. Your brain is playing tricks on you.”
But Valko wasn't the one who had to crack open the back window every morning and look at what the gargoyles were getting up to now.
At least I'm not as frightened as I used to be
, she told herself. After three days of gargoyles on her fire escape, a person can find herself almost getting used to the idea. By yesterday, they were beginning to look what you might even call familiar: good old Beak-Face and Bonnet-Head (she even had names for them now), frozen in the middle of whatever their big project was, over there on the far side of the fire escape. And she would be thirteen tomorrow, anyway. She had always liked the number thirteen. It was a magical and courageous number: unique, prime, and with an individual approach to life.
She swung her legs over the edge of her bed and walked over to the window with quick, determined steps, the kind of steps someone almost thirteen should use, and opened the window with a quick, determined twist of the latch. And then ruined the effect by being so startled all over again that she squeaked out loud and took a hasty step back.
The thing was, he was so close to her window today, old Beak-Face. His monsterish, craggy face was staring straight at her from about ten inches away, and his front claws were right there in front of her nose, almost as if that stony-bony index finger had been petrified just at the very moment it had decided to give his own carved chest a tap.
Once she found her balance again, she got mad, even though what use is it, really, to get mad at statues? So what she said was “What the heck do you
?” and it didn't come off as all that brave, either, because she was still trying not to make any sounds loud enough to tempt James or her mother into this room. They didn't know anything about the gargoyles, and she was absolutely determined to keep things that way. The gargoyles were her problem, hers alone.
And that's when the cold little wind kicked in, whipped right over her shoulders and through the room behind her, rustling through her birthday cards. In fact, one of those envelopes went flying right out the windowâand ran right smack into the solid wall of the gargoyle's chest, while his stone eyes kept staring ahead at Maya in the most disconcerting way.
The letter was plastered against him now, like a beauty queen's sash or one of those “Hello, My Name Is” stickers, and his stone claws gripped the edges of it as if that was what they had been meant to do all along, the one sharp-clawed digit now not tapping his chest so much as pointing. She thought at first it was pointing at nothing, but the nothing changed as she looked, as if ink from the letter inside the envelope were leaching out through the creamy-green fibersâsquiggles and linesâno, actual words from that awful letter, a whole phrase:
the memory stoneâit will hold your instructions
It lingered there under the gargoyle's emphatic claw for a moment and then faded away again, leaving only that one wordâ
âagainst the faintest, most delicately inked-in background of Medusa's scary-face-with-snakes-for-hair.
Maya found she had reached some kind of limit.
“You know what?” she said aloud to the stone gargoyles, to the old Fourcroy's Medusan letter, to the world. “That's enough. Forget it. I'm not doing any of it. Go away. Stop it. He can bring himself back to life, if that's what he wants, that stupid old shadowy Fourcroy. Good-bye!”